Thursday, February 24, 2005

Remember the Pueblo

US demand for return of seized spy ship adds twist to Korean nuclear saga

As diplomatic efforts to end a nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang make little headway, a resolution has been introduced in the US Senate demanding North Korea return an American intelligence ship seized by the hardline communist state 37 years ago.

The attack on the USS Pueblo by North Korean naval vessels and MiG jets on January 23, 1968, left one American dead and several more wounded while 82 surviving crew members were captured, held prisoner and tortured for a year.

The Senate resolution demands the return of the vessel, believed still in North Korean hands.

"North Koreas inhumane treatment of our sailors, and the refusal of Pyongyang to return this vessel should not be forgotten," said Senator Wayne Allard, who filed the resolution this month after the Stalinist state stunned the world by publicly boasting about its nuclear weapons arsenal.

The Republican senator from Colorado said although it had been more than three decades since the "disgraceful episode" occurred, "the United States government should demand the return of the USS Pueblo to the US Navy without further delay."

Washington has been quite reluctant to demand its return because of the embarassment caused by the incident. It had to apologize to North Korea for the spying mission before receiving the surviving crew.

The US Navy had publicly termed the mission a research ship conducting oceanographic studies but North Korean officials shared the secrets they unearthed from the vessel, including codes and cipher machines that enabled the Soviets to decipher many of the restricted American documents, according to reports.

It was the first US Navy ship to be hijacked on the high seas by a foreign military force in over 150 years.

Senator Allard said he would press for passage of his resolution during the current session of the Congress and work with the veterans of the USS Pueblo and their respective groups to "take positive steps" towards getting the vessel back.

"It was docked in the Tedong River and is still impressive and seaworthy," he told AFP. "From the Korean point of view it is an educational exhibit and one of the most sacred trophies aimed at making the point of history about American invasions of Korea," he said.

Carriere said the ship was docked at the same spot where the Koreans sank a US merchant ship called General Sherman, among the first American vessels that sailed into Pyongyang in the 1860's in an apparent bid to "open up" the Korean peninsula to the outside world.

It is believed that North Korea had given serious consideration to returning the USS Pueblo to the United States in the spring of 2002 as part of a "confidence building measure," just months before a nuclear standoff flared up in the fall of that year, an Asian diplomat close to Pyongyang told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.